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Back To Work Monday For Congress



(AP)  Back to work on Monday, Congress faces a hefty list of unfinished business and a politically driven agenda in an election year that will determine control of the House and Senate.

President Barack Obama's nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve and a three-month extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed are first up in Senate, with votes scheduled Monday night. The rare burst of bipartisanship last month produced a budget agreement, but lawmakers were unable to agree on extending federal benefits for an estimated 1.3 million Americans.

Fed chairman, farm bill on Congress' to-do list

Congress' agenda for 2014 extends from must-passed legislation and nominations to several maybes in a politically charged election year.

MUST DO:

-Senate confirmation of Janet Yellen to become chairman of the Federal Reserve. A vote is scheduled for Monday and the Senate is expected to approve President Barack Obama's nominee. Yellen would be the first woman to head the Fed, replacing Ben Bernanke. His second four-year term as chairman will end Jan. 31.

-A short-term spending bill to keep the government running. The current measure ends Jan. 15. The budget bill passed last year gave House and Senate Appropriations Committees time to work on an omnibus, trillion-dollar-plus measure to run the government through September 2014.

-Raising the nation's borrowing authority, which the Treasury Department says must be resolved by late February or early March. Obama has said he won't negotiate with congressional Republicans, but the GOP is seeking concessions on spending.

TANGLED UP, VOTES POSSIBLE:

-Renewal of the nation's farm bill, the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure. Compromise has been elusive for months as the House and Senate disagree over cuts to the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program. The House-passed bill would cut $4 billion annually; the Senate bill $400 million.

-Legislation to delay increases in flood insurance for policyholders. Sen. Mary Landerieu, D-La., and other lawmakers representing coastal states have pushed for the measure.

-A new round of penalties against Iran. Twenty-six senators back legislation that could raise sanctions on Iran and compel the United States to support Israel if it launches a pre-emptive attack on the Iranian nuclear program. Obama has pleaded with Congress to hold off, fearing it would undermine the nuclear deal that world powers reached with Tehran last year.

-An extension of unemployment benefits. An estimated 1.3 million people were cut off when the federally funded unemployment payments ended Dec. 28. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a vote Monday night on whether to move ahead on legislation by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., to extend jobless benefits for three months. Some Republicans are looking for the cost of extending benefits to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere.

TO BE DETERMINED:

-An overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. The bipartisan Senate bill that would provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally and tighten border security has stalled in the House. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has spoken about a piecemeal approach, but some Republicans fear that will lead to negotiations with the Senate and an inevitable final product with some sort of citizenship.
 

 

The payments stopped on Dec. 28 and Democrats, led by Obama, are pushing hard to revive them. The issue is vital to the party's core voters who are crucial in low-turnout, midterm elections, and Democrats left no doubt that they will use any Republican opposition as a political cudgel.

"Dealing with declining middle-class incomes and not enough job growth will be the No. 1 issue," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "And if on the first day of the new session, the Republican Party says they won't even support unemployment benefit extension, the original round was started by George Bush when unemployment was 5.6 percent, they're going to show themselves so far out of the mainstream, it's going to hurt them in the election."

Republicans hinted they might go along with extending benefits if Democrats come up with cuts elsewhere or make other concessions.

"I would like to find a way to get a compromise to extend unemployment insurance, at least for a brief period of time, but at the same time, the Democrats should make compromises," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y.

However, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he is unsure Democrats can cobble together 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle on a bill sponsored by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.

"If we don't get the 60, we will come back at this issue," he promised.

Obama already has scheduled a White House event on Tuesday with some whose benefits expired at the end of December.

"Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year's resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now," Obama said Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.

Schumer, one of his party's leaders, said Democrats would prefer to pass the proposal as is - without a way to pay for it, as has been the case for previous extensions. But he told reporters Sunday he wouldn't rule out a way to pay for the extension.

Critical to economic stability is a smooth transition to a new chairman of the Federal Reserve. The Senate is expected to confirm Yellen to the powerful post, making her the first woman to head the Fed. She would replace Ben Bernanke on Feb. 1.

Republicans intend to focus on every facet of Obama's health care law, sensing a political boost in its problem-plagued rollout as the GOP looks to maintain its House majority and seize control of the Democratic-led Senate.

First up in the House, according to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is legislation addressing the security of personal data, part of his party's effort "to protect the American people from the harmful effects of Obamacare."

Republicans also promise closer scrutiny of the administration's tally of enrollment numbers in the program.

Such rancor ruled in the first session of the 113th Congress with few bills passed and sent to the president. The combination of divided government and the upcoming elections stand as an obstacle to major legislation in the second session, counting down to November when all 435 House seats and 35 Senate seats will be on the ballot.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., predicted widespread inaction would be the norm "unless the Republicans in Congress decide they should do something for the American people."

He described the GOP as "out of touch with what's going on in America today."

Republican Rep. Matt Salmon faulted Obama, calling the president a "polarizing figure" with a "my way or the highway attitude."

Lawmakers face a Jan. 15 deadline to agree on a spending bill to keep the government running and avoid a partial shutdown that roiled Congress last fall. Passage of legislation in December scaling back the automatic, across-the-board cuts gave the House and Senate Appropriations Committees time to draft a massive, trillion-dollar-plus measure to run the government through September.

A short-term measure is likely this month just to let the government continue operating.

The GOP-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate spent a chunk of last year wrangling over renewing the nation's farm bill after passing competing versions of the five-year, roughly $500 billion measure. In dispute are crop subsidies and how deeply to cut the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, with the House slashing $4 billion and the Senate $400 million annually.

Several contentious issues loom in the near term.

Twenty-six senators have signed on to a new Iran sanctions bill that Obama opposes while his administration negotiates with the Iranian government over its nuclear program. Proponents of the legislation that would impose sanctions if the talks falter are seeking to gain the support of more senators when Congress reconvenes, with the hope of a full Senate vote this month.

Although the issue may not be an immediate legislative priority for returning lawmakers, it could become a major point of discussion as advocates and opponents of fresh penalties make their cases.

Reid spared the administration a vote in December, but this month he may not be able to hold off proponents of tough sanctions.

The majority leader did promise Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a vote on her legislation to give victims of rape and sexual assault in the military an independent route outside the chain of command for prosecuting attackers. Her solution would take the decision from commanders and give it to seasoned military lawyers.

Military leaders and several powerful senators oppose the proposal.

Unclear is whether the House will tackle major legislation to overhaul immigration laws. Advocates remain hopeful. But some House Republicans still resist any legislation, fearing it would lead to a final bill that includes a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

King, Salmon and Reid spoke to CBS' "Face the Nation." Schumer spoke to ABC' "This Week."


AP PhotoObama eyes modest momentum on Capitol Hill in 2014

(AP) President Barack Obama gets back to work this week eager to test whether a modest budget deal passed in the waning days of 2013 can spark bipartisan momentum on Capitol Hill. As he opens his sixth year in office, he also faces legacy-defining decisions on the future of government surveillance programs and the American-led war in Afghanistan.

Looming over it all will be the November congressional elections, Obama's last chance to stock Capitol Hill with more Democratic lawmakers who could help him expand his presidential playing field.

For Republicans, those contests are an opportunity to seize control of the Senate, which would render Obama a lame duck for his final two years in the White House.

The wild card in 2014, for the White House and congressional Democrats facing re-election, will be the fate of the president's health care law. The website woes that tainted its launch have largely been resolved and enrollment has picked up. But the White House has been tight-lipped about who has enrolled, raising uncertainty about whether the insurance exchanges are on track to get the percentage of young and healthy people who are critical to keeping prices down.

The health care questions aside, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House enters the new year buoyed by the "modest amount of legislative momentum" generated by the December budget deal.

"We're hopeful Congress can build on it and make progress on other priorities where common ground exists," Earnest said.

It won't take long to test that proposition, with debates on unemployment insurance, budget spending and the government's borrowing limit expected in quick succession in the opening weeks of the year.

If all three can be resolved in drama-free fashion - by Washington standards - the White House believes it could create a more favorable atmosphere for Obama to pursue second-term priorities such as an immigration overhaul and a higher minimum wage, though both would still face steep odds.

The president returned to Washington on Sunday morning after an overnight flight from his home state of Hawaii. He'd spent two quiet weeks on the island of Oahu golfing and spending time with his family and childhood friends.

Obama will step back quickly into the debate over expired unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has scheduled a vote Monday night on a bill that would reinstate the benefits for three months.

Obama will try to make his case the following day, holding a White House event with some of those whose benefits expired at the end of December.

"For decades, Republicans and Democrats put partisanship and ideology aside to offer some security for job-seekers, even when the unemployment rate was lower than it is today," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. "Instead of punishing families who can least afford it, Republicans should make it their New Year's resolution to do the right thing and restore this vital economic security for their constituents right now."

The issue with the greatest potential to upset the tepid truce forged in December's budget deal is the debt ceiling. As part of the agreement that ended the 16-day partial government shutdown in October, Congress suspended the $16 trillion-plus debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says bookkeeping maneuvers he can use to keep under that ceiling will last only until late February or early March.

Obama once again has pledged that he won't negotiate on the matter. House Republicans will plot their strategy at a caucus retreat later this month.

Aside from fiscal matters, the president also must make decisions on what changes he wants in the government's vast surveillance powers. He's expected to announce those changes before his Jan. 28 State of the Union address, though an exact date has not been set.

A presidential commission presented Obama with more than 40 recommendations and the president signaled at a year-end news conference that he was open to many of the proposals. But he's facing pushback from his intelligence advisers, who argue that the widespread collection of telephone and Internet records is crucial to national security.

The president also must make a decision on the future of the American force presence in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is yet to sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. that the Obama administration says is crucial if American troops are to stay in the country after the war formally concludes at the end of 2014.

The White House had hoped to have the agreement signed before Jan. 1, but indicated there was some flexibility on that timing. Officials say that without an agreement soon, the U.S. will be forced to start making plans to bring all of its troops home.

"We are talking about weeks, not months, left on the clock," said Caitlin Hayden, Obama's National Security Council spokeswoman.

Aides say January's packed agenda will keep the president in Washington for much of the lead up to his State of the Union address, though some brief domestic travel may occur


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